A growing number of U.S. consumers are embarking on a quest to eat healthy, and many believe that greenhouse-grown produce will help them achieve that goal. Most are unaware, however, that there’s been a controversy brewing in that category for years, and the debate finally could be resolved in April.

Without a doubt, greenhouse-grown produce is in growth mode.

There are nearly 15,000 acres of “food crops grown under protection,” which includes cloth houses and other structures as well as greenhouse production, in North America, according to the USDA’s U.S. Census of Agriculture. Of the total, 2,250 acres are in the U.S., 3,608 acres are in Canada, and 9,084 acres are in Mexico.

Greenhouse acreage grows every year, says greenhouse vegetable consultant Gary Hickman, a retired greenhouse horticultural adviser for the University of California, Davis who now operates Cuesta Roble Consulting in Mariposa, Calif.

U.S. production alone gained more than 800 acres since 2007, and Hickman says plans are in the works for 1,247 new acres in the U.S., 810 acres in Mexico and 385 acres in Canada in 2017.

Worldwide, Hickman, who makes a wealth of greenhouse data available through his website — cuestaroble.com — estimates that about 7,000 acres of new greenhouse construction has been funded and is under construction or about to begin construction.

Tomatoes make up the biggest greenhouse category with 978 acres in the U.S. Herbs are second with 318 acres; lettuce has 99 acres; bell peppers account for 81 acres; strawberries represent 14 acres; and “others,” including eggplants and snow peas, make up 399 acres.

Consumers perceive greenhouse produce as “superior” to conventionally grown products and may pay more for it, Hickman says.


The controversy

At the same time, many of these consumers have a penchant for organic vegetables. That’s where the controversy lies.

Currently, greenhouse-grown produce — regardless of whether it’s grown hydroponically in a greenhouse or in soil in a field — can be certified “organic” in most states as long as it meets standards set by the National Organic Program. Greenhouse vegetables typically are grown in an inert medium such as perlite or sand — not soil — and that doesn’t sit well with some in the field-grown community.

They say that hydroponically grown vegetables should not be certified organic because they are not grown in soil and, thus, don’t meet USDA requirements for sustaining the soil.

Greenhouse hydroponic growers say their product is grown without toxic pesticides, meets the specific requirements for organic and should be able to be labeled as such.

Experts, Hickman included, say the official definition is “nebulous.”

The National Organics Standards Board, which makes recommendations to the National Organic Program, has made conflicting recommendations, says Sam Jones, a USDA spokesperson.

“In 1995, NOSB recommended that hydroponic production in soilless media could be certified organic if it was done in compliance with organic regulations,” Jones says. “In 2010, when they were reviewing greenhouse production systems, NOSB took a different position and recommended that hydroponics should not be certified organic.”

Currently, NOP allows hydroponically grown products to be certified organic. NOSB might address the issue at its April meeting in Denver; however, the agenda had not been finalized as of late January.


Affect on innovation

“If they change the definition, it’s going to make a big impact on greenhouse organic vegetables,” Hickman says.

Jeff Cordulack, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, says he doesn’t like the idea of the two sides — hydroponic growers and soil-based growers — “drawing a circular firing squad against each other.”

But he seems to lean toward the soil-based growers.

“We’re all fans of good, clean, fairly priced food,“ he says, “but growing plants within soil and its complex soil food web is a different approach to growing than the hydroponic method.

“The hydroponic systems are unlikely to be designed in a way that will allow for a complex microbial food web to be established for the roots to interact with,” he says.

The industry needs to keep an open mind, says Ricardo Crisantes, general manager at Wholesum Family Farms, Nogales, Ariz., a greenhouse operation with facilities in the U.S. and Mexico. He says field growers “want to narrowly define organic to their way of growing.”

“We’re finding out there’s not just one way of growing,” Crisantes says. “There’s a plethora of methods of growing. If we’re going to see an organic industry that’s vibrant, we don’t need to stifle innovation.”

Cordulack says he supports recognizing hydroponic growers who don’t use synthetic materials, but he adds, “This should not be confused with organic growing as we’ve traditionally approached it.

“For now,” Cordulack says, “we think it’s best to keep hydroponic out of organic certification and allow them to get some other recognition for not using synthetics.”

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